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Cliffs and Rich History
Bakhchysaray is a town known for its long history and its scenic location in the southern Crimea. For people who are fond of climbing it is also known for cliffs that provide perfect climbing opportunities. Olha KASHYRINA is one of those people.
Photos: Oleksandr Horobets, Oleksandr Krasnov, Oleksandr Kadnikov
I am one of those who can be classified as “an active holidaymaker” — that is, I like traveling, and I love combining culture tourism with mountain climbing rather than spending my holidays in languorous dolce far niente, sprawled on the beach, sun- and sea bathing, and cocktail sipping.
But no, the Everest kind of climbing is not for me. Yes, I am in for climbing but of the kind that is just enough to get the adrenalin flowing.
Last year, choosing where to go, I opted for Bakhchysaray, a town in the Crimea which I knew had both culture and an opportunity for some cliff climbing to offer.
A couple of my friends who are hot to trot and do not take a long time to be talked into getting up and going, agreed to join me for the trip.
We traveled first by train to Simferopol and then by bus. Since it was not the peak of the tourist season, we did not have a problem of finding rooms to stay for a couple of days that we planned to spend in Bakhchysaray.
We decided to devote the first day to climbing and the second to a culture program.
I knew that there were at least five places in the vicinity of Bakhchysaray that were good for cliff climbing. They vary both in the scenery they offer and in the difficulty of climbing.
None of us was a beginner but neither did we feel like overtaxing ourselves at a place which would demand too much strain — so we opted for a place of a medium difficulty. Some of us have had more climbing experience than others and we wanted to go to a place which would be neither too easy nor too difficult to climb.
We discussed which of the five climbing places would be the best for us to go to — Stolby, Krovavaya Balka, Stadion, Yuznoye Staroselye and Severnoye Staroselye. Altogether, there was a choice of about 120 ascents and descents on the climbing “menu.”
We compared notes and figured out that the place called Stolby (Pillars) was the most scenic but also the toughest. And so we went to Yuzhnoye Staroselye (also known as Pivdenne Starosillya), the place probably the most popular with tourists who want a bit of climbing excitement.
The place we went to offers about 50 ascents and descents of varying climbing difficulty. You can climb down and you can climb up, depending on your mood or skill. Safety measures differ too, depending on whether you go up or down.
It was a perfect day for climbing – a light breeze, sunshine but not hot. The climbing exercise proved to be invigorating.
After a short rest, we took a walk to explore the place and discovered that there was also a training ground in Yuzhnoye Staroselye, called Vertykalny (Vertical) Park. There people with no prior experience of cliff climbing are trained to use the climbing equipment and the basics of climbing. We saw not only grown-ups there but even children training. The instructors are experienced climbers.
There is an organization, Crimean Mountaineering Club (check www.mountcrimea.com), that looks after the places where people go to do some climbing. The Club also provides the climbing gear to rent.
We returned to Bakhchysaray fully satisfied with our climbing experience — and we were ready to devote the next day to a culture program.
Bakhchysaray was the capital of the Crimean khanate up to 1783, when it passed to Russia. The town, with a population of about 30,000 people, still boasts many buildings of historical and architectural interest, including the palace of the Tartar khans.
The palace of the Tartar khans was the first on our tourist priority list. It was an obvious choice — it is right in the center of the town and is its major tourist attraction. So it was natural that we went there first.
You can join a guided tour, you can hire a guide but we wandered around on our own. The mosque of the khans, the khans’ cemetery with ancient marble tombs, the Falcon Tower, the harem, the summer gazebo, the Golden Study, the living quarters, the Courtyard of Receptions, the fountains, including the Fountain of Tears, the decorative architectural elements everywhere are quite fascinating.
If you add up to it stories, anecdotes and legends that come from the times of old, the visit to the place is a great cultural experience.
On the way to our next destination from the khan’s palace, my friends wanted to pay a visit to a market where souvenirs were sold. I did not care to do any souvenir hunting, so I found a shady place under an age-old walnut tree, and sat down on the ground, my back leaning against the trunk. I watched the bustling market where all sorts of Oriental-looking and exotic souvenirs were sold. My gaze wandered into the distance, to the far-away rocks and tree groves, and I felt transported to a fairy-tale land. The Oriental-style bazaar enhanced this fairy-tale impression.
The Svyato-Uspensky monastery, to which we proceeded from the market, dates from the thirteenth century. Its cells and the church were cut on the face of the cliffs, but in later times some buildings were built where it was possible to do so.
To get to the Uspenska (Assumption) Church, you have to ascend a long stairway. At one of the landings, a wonderful panorama of the surrounding cliffs opens up.
However, it was not so much the monastery and the church that we wanted to see but the deserted medieval town of Chufut-Kale (or Cufut-Qale) that sits on the plateau high above the valley.
For me, Chufut-Kale proved to be Bakhchysaray’s highlight. This fortress or a town was founded more than a thousand years ago. Researchers are not unanimous as to the time of the town’s appearance. Some of them consider it to be a Byzantine fortress founded in the sixth century. Others are of the opinion that the fortified settlement appeared in the tenth or the eleventh century.
During the early period of the town’s history, it was mainly populated by Alans, the most powerful of the Sarmatian tribes of Iranian descent. Settling down in the mountainous Crimea, the Alans adopted Christianity.
The cave town is mentioned in some early sources under the name of Kyrk-Or (Forty Fortifications). At the turn of the fifteenth century, the Karaites settled there and built a new defensive wall. After the Crimea’s conquest by the Russian Empire, the Karaites declared their loyalty to the new rulers. In return, the government granted them privileges, enabling them to live anywhere in the empire. From that time on, Chufut-Kale became deserted. Following the track from the Uspenska Church, we climbed to the fourteenth-century main South Gate.
Now there is hardly anything but ruins in Chufut-Kale but there are some buildings which are still standing. It’s a wonderful place to explore, especially the burial chambers and caves with a large open “window” in the vertiginous northern cliff. The views from the top into the valley below are truly breathtaking.
Passing through the gate, we entered an area of carved-out rooms and steps. Surviving kenassas — Karaite prayer houses (Karaism, a doctrine which rejects rabbinism and talmudism and bases its tenets on the interpretation of the Pentateuch) and the Muslim mausoleum of the fifteenth century, which is said to be that of a khan’s daughter, are the visual landmarks. Behind the mausoleum we walked towards the cliff edge and enjoyed the view into the valley below.
I was reluctant to leave — and I knew I would come back.
Vertykalny Park — one of the places with varying degrees
Stovpy, one of the several places in the vicinity
An ancient street of Chufut-Kale
A panorama from the plateau Chufut-Kale.
The Assumption Church in the Uspensky Monastery.
A recently published book, Ukrayina. Vidpochyvay aktyvno! (Ukraine. Have “Active” Holidays), offers information on a wide variety of sporting activities and “active” entertainment to enjoy: mountain climbing, trekking, bicycling, parachuting, hang-gliding, paragliding, windsurfing, rafting, skiing, snowboarding, to name but the most popular ones. And it is not only the Crimea that one can go to do some “active’ holidaying — there are excellent places to be found in many other parts of Ukraine as well.